THE HUSBAND OF ONE WIFE
© 2008 John H Mattox

   One of the qualifications listed by the Apostle Paul for both bishops (pastors) and deacons, is that each be the husband of one wife. Accordingly, many churches and ministers have refused to participate in the ordination of a man who has been divorced, and has remarried; on the grounds that he has two living wives, and is not, therefore, the husband of one wife. In still other cases, men have been refused ordination merely because they were married to women who had been divorced. Is such an application of this passage a proper one? Does a divorced and remarried man have more than one wife within the meaning of the passages in question? ( I Tim. 5:1-15; Titus 1:5-9)
   To answer these questions, it really is necessary to raise and answer several others; for it is obvious that the above-mentioned view of pastoral qualifications is dependent upon the idea that a man, though legally divorced from a wife, is, according to Scripture, still married to her. Thus, the question of the Christian teaching on divorce and remarriage must be raised and answered. This, in turn, will entail a discussion of whether the Christian is under law, or under grace.
   If this latter question is put to the average Christian, his answer undoubtedly would be that the Christian is not under law, but under grace. He would give this answer because he knows that the New Testament so teaches. However, when he is pressed as to the consequences of the Christian's being under grace, rather than law, it will more than likely become plain that he does not believe the answer he has given. He will probably maintain that a Christian cannot smoke cigarettes, go to movies, or dances, etc., without being guilty of sin. Thus while asserting that the Christian is under grace, rather than law, he actually believes that the Christian lives under a set of rules and regulations; the overstepping of which amounts to sin.
   Paul said, in Romans 6:14:

"For sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law, but under grace."

A more correct translation of the verse is:

"For sin shall not lord it over you; for you are not under law, but under grace."

There is no definite article before the word law in the Greek, therefore, the primary reference is not to the Mosaic law, but to law as a principle. The passage might be thus paraphrased:

"for you are not under law as a principle, but under the principle of grace."

What Paul meant by this statement is that the Christian is not subject to a set of external rules and regulations, as were the Jews. As far as such external legal codes are concerned, the Christian is free from them, for he has become dead to law through identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. Galatians 2:19-20 reads literally:

"For I through law, died to law, that I might live to God. I have been co-crucified with Christ; and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and that which I now live in ( the ) flesh, I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

   Does this mean, then, that the Christian is absolutely without restraint; that he is subject to no law whatsoever? The answer is negative. Such a state of affairs would be antinomianism, and this particular form of heresy has already been encountered and dealt with in the churches. The truth is that the Christian is not subject to any external law, whether written on tables of stone, or on the pages of the New Testament; but he is subject to an internal law; namely, the law that God has written on his heart. By what procedure does God write, or impress his laws upon our hearts? It takes place as we read, study, or hear the Word of God as it is preached and taught. Its precepts or principles are impressed upon our hearts (seat of motivation) so that we do God's will, not because some outward law says "you must", but because an inward desire says, "I want to". God's will has thereby become our own will, and we do voluntarily, without any compulsion or coercion, the things that please him. The writer of Hebrews, quoting Jeremiah 31:51-55, writes:

"Behold the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I wll be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people."
Hebrews 8:9-10.

Thus, according to the provisions of the New Covenant, or New Testament, God's laws, or principles of behavior, are written on our hearts, rather than on tables of stone. Of course, the degree to which God's laws are written on any Christian's heart depends on the attention which that Christian has given to the reading and study of the Bible.
   Under the law, when a Jew was in doubt about a particular action, or course of action, he would ask, Is It lawful? Under grace, the Christian should ask, Is it profitable? Note Paul's words in I Cor. 6:12:

"All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient (profitable): all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any."

These words are repeated almost verbatim in I Cor. 10:25:

"All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: All things are lawful for me, but all things edify not." (edify = build up).

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The Husband of One Wife (cont)

   Thus the Christian's philosophy of action is not, Is it lawful?, but Is it profitable?; Does it build up, or tear down?; Is it beneficial or detrimental to the cause of Christ? (Note also in this connection, Rom. 14:14-25)
   Keeping in mind, then, the fact that the Christian is not under law, but under grace, let us consider the Christian view of divorce and remarriage. The popular view of the matter is that divorce is not justified except in the case of fornication (to which a variety of meanings are assigned), and that the man who divorces his wife, and remarries, then has two wives. The Scriptural authority given is Matt. 5:51-52, and Matt. 19:5-9; along with the parallel passages in the other gospels. These passages, however, are pure legalism, and cannot be properly applied to those who are under grace. Matt. 5:51-52 is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, and incredible as it may sound, the Sermon on the Mount is not a statement of Christian principles, but is an exposition of the Mosaic law. Although our Lord was the speaker, he was speaking to people who were under law. Even the disciples, who believed on him, were under the law, for it was not until his death that the handwriting of ordinances, which was against us was nailed to the cross. Moreover, even the subject matter of the Sermon on the Mount reveals its legalism.
   In the fifth chapter of Matthew alone, from which the passage in question is taken, Jesus discusses six points of the Mosaic law. Two of these are from the Ten Commandments; the other four are from other parts of the law. An analysis of the chapter from verse 21 to the end reveals that the points discussed are:

  1. The law against murder
  2. The law against adultery
  3. The law of divorce
  4. The law of oaths
  5. The law of vengeance
  6. The law of love

   The purpose of Jesus in discussing these subjects was to demonstrate to the disciples that the scope of the law far exceeded that which the Scribes and Pharisees were wont to give it. By showing that the law embraced not only the act itself, but the intent of the heart which produced the acts, Jesus designed to impress upon them the hopelessness of human nature's attempting to be justified by keeping the law. Thus, what Jesus had to say about divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, had to do with divorce under the law; not under grace. In Matt. 19:3-9, the matter is discussed again from the legal point of view. Note that the Pharisees had asked him,

"Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?"

Here a group of people who were definitely under the law were inquiring as to the lawful grounds for divorce. Certainly the answer of Jesus does not have literal application to those who are under grace, anymore than the law of the sabbath does. But what did Jesus mean when he summed up His answer to the Pharisees by saying,

"what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."?

Those who believe that Jesus, in his answer to the Pharisees, was denying, even to Christians, the possibility of divorce, are perfectly willing to use this verse as a proof text; yet when its application to the matter of divorce is thoughtfully considered, some disturbing questions are raised.
   In the first place, the King James reading is Inaccurate. It is not what God hath joined together; but what God did join together. In other words, the verb is aorist in tense. This tense is used to denote punctiliar action (not repeated, habitual, or customary) in past time. It surely is not the tense Jesus would have used had he been referring to the notion that God joins together all those who marry; for marriages are constantly taking place; they are frequent occurrences. The present tense would seem to be called for: what God joins together, let not man put asunder.
   Another problem lies in the assumption that marriages are indeed made in heaven; that God himself joins together those who marry; and that for men to presume to separate such married ones, by granting them a divorce, amounts to putting asunder what God has joined together. But can such a proposition be sustained? When a man and a woman who are relative strangers, get drunk and go to the nearest justice of the peace and get married, can anyone seriously maintain that such a couple were joined together by God? If not, where would the line be drawn? How would we determine who was married with the approval and assistance of the Lord, and who was not? It can be seen that the popular interpretation of the passage leaves much to be desired. But if that interpretation is not valid, what is the correct one?
   The writer believes that Jesus, in his answer to the Pharisees, went far beyond their actual question, and laid down guidance for the church in time to come. He knew that there would be in the churches those who, as Paul put it, would forbid to marry; suggesting that the sexual relation was, somehow, impure; and that those who would serve God in a full-time capacity, whether male or female, should refrain from marriage. Thus, the writer takes the statement of Jesus to be a vindication of the marital relationship and a warning to men not to deny the right of marriage to any individual man or woman. The passage affirms that God joined the first man and woman together in marriage, thus establishing it as his directive will that men and women thus be joined together. Therefore to deny to anyone that right is to defy the very ordinance of God. This interpretation fits the use of the aorlst tense, inasmuch as Jesus was referring to the joining of Adam and Eve in the beginning, and is not embarrassed by unrealistic assumptions. It is not those who grant divorces who should pay special heed to this passage, but those who deny to full time Christian workers the right to marry and raise a family.
 
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The Husband of One Wife (cont)

   Let us now proceed to the consideration of the Christian view of divorce and remarriage. The teaching of the New Testament on the subject may be summarized as follows: Marriage is an honorable state, and every effort should be put forth by the Christian to keep his or her marriage intact. However, although marriage is considered as normally a permanent state, recognition is given to the fact that in some cases it is better to dissolve the marriage. A passage in point is I Cor. 7:12-l4:

"But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases; but God hath called us to peace."

The latter part of the passage literally says:

"The brother or the sister has not been enslaved in such matters; but God hath called us in peace."

   It may be noted that in the 10th verse of the given chapter, Paul says:

"And unto the married I command, yet not I but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife."

The reader will doubtless ask: But is not this a divine prohibition against divorce and remarriage? Does not Paul say I command, yet not I, but the Lord? The answer is that the word command, both here and everywhere else where it is directed to Christians, is too strong for the Greek word for which it stands. In every such case the Greek word is parangello, a word which literally means, to announce alongside. Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon gives the meaning as follows: properly, to transmit a message along from one to another; to declare; to announce; to command, to order; to charge. It is therefore evident that the verb does not mean to command, in an absolute sense, but rather signifies to charge. It is a matter of telling people what they ought to do, rather than what they must do.
   It should be mentioned, at this point, that the stringent law against divorce under the Mosaic covenant was not at all intended to restrict a man to a sexual relationship with only one woman; for polygamy was practiced widely and openly; and even David, whom God asserted to be a man after his own heart, had a number of wives, while his son and successor on the throne, Solomon, is said to have had three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines. Yet, in no case was a polygamlst ever held to be a transgressor of the law because of his polygamy. The reason for the severe restrictions on divorce was rather to protect the wife from being turned out of her husband's house with no place to go, and no way to provide for herself.
   It must be remembered that in Biblical times, the woman held not merely a subordinate position, but a rather servile one. Apart from a husband, father, or other male relative, she had little standing in the community, and scant means of making a living. It was therefore to protect the wife, rather than to limit the sexual activity of the husband, that the law against divorce was so rigid.
   With all of these facts in mind, let us now proceed to deal with the original question: Does the passage which says that a bishop or deacon is to be the "husband of one wife" mean that a divorced and remarried man is not qualified to be a bishop or deacon? The writer does not believe that the passage in question has reference to divorce and remarriage, but rather to polygamy.
   It may be argued that a man who is divorced and remarried has two wives, and is therefore a polygamist; but even if we grant, merely for the sake of argument, that his first marriage is still binding, we can only conclude that he has had two wives, not that he presently has two. (We are assuming, of course, that he no longer lives with wife number one.) In such a case, the man is no more a polygamist than a man who has married a second time after the death of his first wife. The passage we are considering says that a bishop, or deacon, must be the husband of one wife. It does not say that he must have been the husband of one wife. Dr. A. T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the New testament, loc. cit., says regarding the phrase, husband of one wife, one at a time, clearly. Thus, one of the greatest New Testament Greek scholars of all time, who certainly had no interest in defending divorce, says that the passage refers to having one wife at the time.
   But if the qualification does not apply to divorce, why should it apply to polygamy? Was polygamy a problem in New Testament times, as divorce was known to be? Polygamy was definitely practiced, among Christians as well as pagans, not only in New Testament times, but as late as the seventeenth century. The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1950 edition, says:

"Polygyny (plural wives) was frequently practiced by the Merovingian kings. Charlemagne had two wives and many concubines and one of his laws seems to imply that polygyny was not unknown even among the priests. In later times, Philip of Hesse and Frederick William II of Prussia contracted bigamous marriages with the sanction of the Lutheran clergy. In 1650, soon after the peace of Westphalia, when the population had been greatly reduced by the Thirty Years War, the Frankish Kreistad at Nuernberg passed the resolution that thenceforth every man should be allowed to marry two women."
(See note on polygamy at end of article.)

   But if God, in the mystery of his permissive will, allowed men to practice polygamy; and if such men as Abraham, Jacob, David, and others, maintained a close relationship with God, in spite of polygamous practices, why then did he, through the Apostle Paul, advise that both a bishop and a deacon should be a monogamist? The writer suggests two possible reasons: first, since God, in the beginning, made one woman for one man, it was obviously not his fundamental, or directive, will that a man have more than one wife. And even though before, and during, the period of the Mosaic law, polygamy was permitted, God never encouraged it; and the record shows that it was, by and large, anything but a blessing to those who practiced it. It would therefore seem that God, in limiting bishops and deacons to one wife, was calling upon them to set a good example for their flocks, with a view to eradicating an undesirable practice. No one can deny that wherever Christianity has gone, such undesirable practices as slavery and polygamy have been eventually eradicated. The second reason is practical in nature. Biblical illustrations of polygamous marriages show that the husband had to put up with a great deal of rivalry, quarreling and enmity among his several wives. Such a marital situation would certainly distract a bishop or deacon from his ecclesiastical duties, and would render him relatively ineffective in such work.
   The writer believes that a man who is otherwise qualified to be a minister (or deacon), and shows evidence of a call to such ministry, should not be disqualified, merely because he has been divorced and remarried. In practice, tbis one point is usually magnified above all the others, and is considered to be sufficient grounds for disqualifying a prospective minister, even though he may excel in all of the other qualities mentioned. We may reasonably ask whether the list of qualifications is supposed to set a minimum standard for ordination, or whether it sets forth an ideal which should be the goal of every minister; but which each of us fails to measure up to in an absolute sense. Honesty will compel us to admit that the latter is the case, and that the qualifications mentioned do not comprise an absolute standard which must be measured up to completely; but rather set forth a word picture of the ideal pastor and deacon, which each such official should strive to emulate.
 
NOTE: The word polygamy refers to plural marriages. When polygamy involves one man with two or more wives, it is called polygyny. In some parts of the world a woman may have several husbands; this form of polygamy is called polyandry.
 
John H Mattox

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